The Red Sox Got Slapped on the Wrist for Their Illegal Sign-Stealing

If you were hunkered down under a stay-at-home order waiting for Major League Baseball to release its long-awaited report on the Red Sox’s illegal sign-stealing efforts, then we have good news for you: the wait is over. On Wednesday, the league announced the conclusions of its investigation and the punishments handed down by commissioner Rob Manfred. If you were expecting the discipline to be comparable to that received by the Astros in January, you may want to get back to binge-watching Tiger King, because according to the report, there simply isn’t a lot to see here.

In the case of the Astros, when Manfred issued his report on January 13, he found that the team illegally stole signs during the 2017 regular and postseason and into the 2018 regular season. He suspended president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch for the 2020 season (both were fired by owner Jim Crane within hours), fined the team $5 million (the maximum allowed under MLB’s constitution), and stripped them of their first- and second-round picks in both this year’s and next year’s amateur drafts. When it came to disciplining the Red Sox, however, Manfred only found evidence that the illegal sign-stealing occurred during the 2018 regular season; suspended only J.T. Watkins, the team’s video replay system operator; stripped away only its second-round pick in this year’s draft; and did not fine the team. As with the Astros, no players were punished.

The baseball world waited 3 1/2 months for this? A previously unknown backroom employee has taken the fall for an entire organization while those above him escaped without punishment — it doesn’t get much more anticlimactic than that, nor does it make a whole lot of sense, given the need for intermediaries between the video room and the dugout. And it certainly isn’t a severe enough punishment to act as a deterrent. There isn’t a team among the 30 who wouldn’t trade a second-round draft pick and a single baseball operations employee for a world championship.

Per the report, both former president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, who was fired in September, and current general manager Brian O’Halloran were found to be not at fault, having complied with MLB’s mandate to communicate league rules regarding sign-stealing to coaches, players, and non-uniform personnel. Former manager Alex Cora, who was implicated as being central to the Astros’ 2017 sign-stealing efforts in his role as the the team’s bench coach, was suspended through the 2020 season, the same penalty that Hinch and Luhnow received; however, he was not additionally disciplined for infractions in Boston. From the report (PDF here):

“I do not find that then-Manager Alex Cora, the Red Sox coaching staff, the Red Sox front office, or most of the players on the 2018 Red Sox knew or should have known that Watkins was utilizing in-game video to update the information that he had learned from his pregame analysis. Communication of these violations was episodic and isolated to Watkins and a limited number of Red Sox players only.”

The delayed report and the light punishment are certain to generate cynicism about the depth of Manfred’s investigation, particularly given that at the owners’ meetings in November, less than a week after The Athletic’s first report regarding the Astros’ trash can banging scheme was published, Manfred told reporters, “I have no reason to believe [the sign-stealing] extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

Given what we now know about the volume of previous complaints against the Astros — including a 2018 incident in which a man named Kyle McLaughlin who had been credentialed by the team was caught taking photographs near the dugouts of the Indians during the Division Series and the Red Sox during the League Championship Series — that smacks of either gross naiveté or willful obfuscation. If Manfred didn’t find as much in the Red Sox investigation, was it because he wasn’t looking as hard, either because he didn’t want to sully the accomplishments of a second straight World Series winner or because he didn’t have a bone to pick with the team’s front office culture, as he clearly had with regards to the Astros? The report offers counters to that line of thinking, which isn’t to say that it will assuage his critics.

That said, one can take the parallels in the two cases only so far, because of two major differences. Houston’s trash can banging system involved a video monitor showing the center field camera feed that was placed in the tunnel near the dugout; once the signs were decoded, the system — in which a player banged a trash can with a bat to signal the upcoming pitch type to the batter — worked even with nobody on second base. Furthermore, the allegations were publicly substantiated by a whistleblower who had been a member of the 2017 Astros, namely pitcher Mike Fiers. The Red Sox’s system depended upon having a runner on second base, and lacked a whistleblower — or, apparently, anybody who implicated Cora, the coaching staff, or the front office.

According to the report, MLB’s Department of Investigations (DOI) interviewed 65 witnesses, including 34 current or former Red Sox players, some of them multiple times. The DOI also reviewed “tens of thousands of emails, text messages, video clips, and photographs” as well as the cell phones of certain team employees. The team fully cooperated with the investigation.

The report stresses that MLB rules did not and still do not prohibit every method of sign stealing, noting that it is permissible both for baserunners to attempt to do so in-game and for teams to utilize video before or after games, all with the goal of providing a competitive advantage. The report notes that from 2014 (when the current instant replay review system was put into place) to ’17, the league rules stated that “no equipment may be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a Club an advantage,” but that “many Clubs and their players did not view that prohibition as restricting staff and players in the replay room from attempting to decode signs during a game for use when a runner was on second base.” Various reports from around the league have suggested that other teams operated in that gray area as well; when they broke the news about the Red Sox’s allegations on January 7, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich reported that the Yankees began using the video room to decode sign sequences as far back as 2015.

The so-called “Apple Watch incident” involving the Red Sox and Yankees marked a turning point in the league’s efforts to address the use of electronic equipment in sign stealing. During a series between the two rivals at Fenway Park from August 18-20, 2017, video shot by the Yankees and forwarded to the league office showed a Red Sox assistant trainer using an Apple Watch to convey information about the Yankees’ signs, a violation of the aforementioned rule, which to that point had no mechanism for enforcement. The Red Sox, then managed by John Farrell, admitted to wrongdoing but claimed that team management was not aware of what was happening, and in a counter-complaint, said that the Yankees used a YES Network camera improperly. Manfred fined the Red Sox an undisclosed amount of money, and issued a statement saying in part, “[A]ll 30 Clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.” At that time, Manfred also issued a memorandum to all teams specifically stating that any future use of electronic equipment to steal signs would be taken “extremely seriously,” with general managers and field managers held accountable for any violations of the rules. In March 2018, Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre underscored the matter by circulating a league-wide memo notifying teams that “electronic equipment, including game feeds in the Club replay room and/or video room, may never be used during a game for the purpose of stealing the opposing team’s signs.”

According to the report, the Red Sox staffers consistently stated that they were aware of the prohibition, and that the front office took proactive measures to ensure compliance. However, Watkins — who was “a key participant” in the Apple Watch incident — apparently ran afoul of the rules. While his attempts to decode sign sequences prior to and after games, and to communicate those findings to players in pregame meetings, were permissible, he was also the person stationed in the replay room advising the manager on whether to challenge a play on the field. Thus, he had the ability to supplement or update his work based on in-game video, and he apparently did:

However, a smaller number of players said that on at least some occasions, they suspected or had indications that Watkins may have revised the sign sequence information that he had provided to players prior to the game through his review of the game feed in the replay room. They largely based their belief on the fact that Watkins on occasion provided different sign sequence information during the game than he had offered prior to the game, and, based on the circumstances of the communication, they assumed that the revised information came from his review of ingame video. One player described that he observed Watkins write down sign sequence information during the game while he appeared to be watching the game feed in the replay room, circling the correct sign in the sequence after the pitch was thrown.

The information Watkins obtained was relevant only when the Red Sox had a runner on second base and if the opposing team did not change its sign sequence; according to the report, “Watkins communicated sign sequences evidently decoded from the in-game feed in only a small percentage of those occurrences.” Nonetheless, Manfred found enough evidence to hold him accountable, to suspend him for the 2020 season without pay, and to prohibit him from serving as the replay room operator in both the ’21 regular season and postseason.

Where the report strains credulity is in its failure to implicate anybody else, and particularly any non-playing personnel who would be subject to discipline: “Watkins’s communication of sign information evidently decoded from the replay station was episodic and was done without the knowledge of the Manager, the coaching staff, and most of the players.” We’re left to believe that Cora, who was immersed in multiple modes of sign-stealing in Houston (first the “Codebreaker” algorithm and then the banging scheme) was unaware of what was going on under his nose, and that in the pregame hitters’ meetings in which Watkins was involved, when he “described opposing pitchers’ tendencies, including any decoded sign sequences from past games,” there was no discussion as to how updated signs would be relayed in-game? Come on.

“Watkins claims that all of the sign information that he provided to players during the game was based either on his advance work or information communicated to him by Red Sox players who had stolen signs while on second base,” wrote Manfred in the report. “In fact, he asserted that players were aware that they were supposed to routinely provide him with sign information gathered when they were on second base. He claimed that these in-game communications of sign sequence information were never based on his own in-game sign decoding.”

Despite Watkins’ account, 11 players said that he communicated the sign information in a manner that indicated that he had obtained it in game, by providing them with different sign sequences than he had previously, or describing what he was seeing “this inning.” Four witnesses said that Watkins used gestures or notes to communicate updated sequence information when a Video Room Monitor was present in the replay room — a program that according to previous reports didn’t begin until the 2018 postseason, and continued through the 2019 season. Watkins even admitted to doing so, albeit with the excuse that he did not want to “give the impression that we were doing something that we should not be doing.” Despite that, the report conceded that there was an insufficient amount of evidence “to conclude that the conduct continued in the 2018 Postseason or 2019 regular season.” This seems to be a rather glaring contradiction, given the multiple witnesses and the timing of the monitoring program.

As for why players weren’t disciplined, again that’s sure to annoy some observers, but when Manfred steered clear of doing so with regards to Houston despite a much greater certainty of their involvement, it was a signal that he understood that he lacked the ability to act unilaterally. Such punishments must be collectively bargained, and so any attempt the commissioner made to suspend or ban players would have been challenged by the players’ union and subject to appeal, whereas the parties he did discipline in both cases have no such recourse.

As for the rest of the organization, witness consistently described Dombrowski and O’Halloran circulating MLB’s rules memoranda, both via email and hard copy, to relevant staff including Cora and Watkins. They stressed its importance, noted key changes, sought feedback regarding regulations, and conducted a compliance review session for clubhouse and training staff. “I cannot fault either Dombrowski or O’Halloran for any nonplayer staff member’s lack of adherence to the sign-stealing rules,” wrote Manfred. “While I strongly believe in the accountability of leadership, given that Dombrowski and O’Halloran were emphatic that MLB’s rules be followed, there must be limits when leaders’ resolute and active support for the rules is knowingly defied. It is apparent on this record that any failure by non-player staff to abide by the rules was in spite of the efforts and culture of the Red Sox’ front office.”

That’s a stark contrast to the Astros report, where Manfred found that Luhnow “failed to take any adequate steps to ensure that his Club was in compliance with the rules,” and went to town on the front office culture: “The Astros’ violation of rules in 2017 and 2018 is attributable, in my view, to a failure by the leaders of the baseball operations department and the Field Manager to adequately manage the employees under their supervision, to establish a culture in which adherence to the rules is ingrained in the fabric of the organization, and to stop bad behavior as soon as it occurred.”

That’s a fair enough explanation as to why Dombrowski and O’Hallaran weren’t disciplined, but we should stop short of lauding the culture they instilled if it ultimately broke bad, and if (as was the case) many players told investigators they were unaware of the prohibitions against in-game sign-decoding in 2018 and ’19. What’s more, to these eyes it still seems a stretch that Cora knew nothing about all of this, particularly given how deeply immersed he was in the Astros’ sign-stealing efforts. Perhaps he saw the difference in the way the two front offices handled the league’s communications and their internal compliance efforts and realized that what flew in Houston would not fly in Boston, but one would think he’d have voiced his suspicions if something was afoot, and yet nowhere does the report say that. In fact, Manfred noted that “Cora did not effectively communicate to Red Sox players the sign-stealing rules that were in place for the 2018 season,” but even so, he didn’t mete out additional discipline beyond what could have been inferred from the punishments of Hinch and Luhnow. At the time the Houston report was issued, the Red Sox’s efforts had just come to light, and so the commissioner withheld determining Cora’s punishment until the completion of the second investigation.

Given the tenuous status of the 2020 season due to the pandemic, Cora’s suspension may wind up not even being much of a suspension at all. Earlier this month, ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that in the event no baseball is played in 2020, Hinch and Luhnow would be considered as having served their suspensions. The language in the Houston report is that both suspensions end “on the day following the completion of the 2020 World Series” rather than mandating a specific number of games missed, and while Manfred obviously did not account for the contingency of the cancellation of part or all of the 2020 season due to pandemic, it’s likely that any official declaration of the World Series’ cancellation due to previously unforeseen circumstances would apply, thus ending the suspension. The wording for Cora’s suspension is “through the conclusion of the 2020 Postseason,” but the effect appears to be the same, in that it won’t carry over. That’s a frustrating outcome.

The timing of the suspension leaves open the possibility that Cora could manage again, either with the Red Sox or another team, as early as next season — which seems to be quite a contrast to the case of Cora’s friend and partner in Astros skullduggery, Carlos Beltrán, who resigned as Mets manager before he could even manage a single game; because he was a player at the time of his infraction, he wasn’t suspended, but nobody’s hinting that he’ll be welcomed back to the dugout with open arms.

Red Sox team president Sam Kennedy said on a conference call that Ron Roenicke is “our manager,” but his contract only runs through 2020, even after the team declared on Wednesday that the “interim” tag had been removed from his title. Asked whether he felt Cora deserved a second chance, Kennedy said, “I do. That’s my personal feeling. He does need to go through a rehabilitation process. What he did was wrong. He acknowledged it to us and apologized to us for that. But I’m a big believer in second chances and we all wish him well.”

On the same call, Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom reiterated that when the team parted ways with Cora in January, it was for his conduct with the Astros, saying, ““It had nothing to do with what may or may not have occurred in Boston. That’s still the case.” Bloom stopped short of saying that he would hire Cora again, but did add, “My opinion of him is very high.”

In all, this is an unsatisfying end to an unsavory saga. Two consecutive world champions were found to have engaged in illegal sign-stealing using electronic means, and while it cost both teams their field managers, some front office personnel, and assorted draft picks, that does not appear to be a particularly strong deterrent, especially when one focuses upon the lesser penalties imposed upon the Red Sox. Granted, the league’s plans to prevent similar occurrences from happening in the future have yet to be finalized due to the delayed season, but one can’t help but get the feeling that MLB is less focused upon solving the problem than simply wanting to turn the page on an ugly chapter, and hope that amid the bigger problems facing the country right now, all is forgiven and forgotten. It shouldn’t be that easy.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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CC AFCmember
4 years ago

A-Rod slapped Bronson Arroyo’s wrist 5 times harder than MLB just slapped the Sawx